Fiona Foley

Fiona Foley (born 1964) is a contemporary Indigenous Australian artist from Badtjala, Fraser Island, Queensland.[1] Foley is regarded for her activity as an academic, cultural and community leader and for co-founding the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative.[2] Her practice encompasses many media including painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, textiles and installation.[2][3] Her work addresses contemporary political issues facing Indigenous Australians and is held in the public collections of many Australian state, national and university collections including the Cruthers Collection of Women's Art as well as the British Museum.[3] Foley's work has toured internationally and featured in several major exhibitions including Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum and Aboriginal Art in Modern Worlds at Russia's Hermitage Museum.[4]


Fiona Foley was born in Maryborough in 1964 and raised in nearby Hervey Bay and (briefly) Mount Isa.[2] Foley attended high school in Sydney with her siblings, and then attained a Certificate of Arts from East Sydney Technical College in 1983.[2][3] She was one of the first Indigenous students to attend the Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney University completing a Bachelor of Visual Arts in 1986.[2] The following year she completed a Diploma of Education at Sydney University.[3]

Foley's mother, Shirley Foley, was born in Urangan and was a member of the Wondunna clan of the Badtjala people who are indigenous to Thoorgine (Fraser Island).[2] In 1988, Shirley Foley established the Thoorgine Educational and Culture Centre on the island.[2] She spent twenty years researching and recording Badtjala language and culture, culminating in the publication of a Badtjala/English dictionary.[2] Her mother's cultural pride and high regard for education have influenced Foley throughout her career.[2] Her father, Gary Foley, is an Aboriginal activist and actor who collaborated on and featured in the 1977 film Backroads.[5]

Since 1985, Foley has had significant engagement with Indigenous communities in central Australia, most notably Maningrida and Ramingining in Arnhem Land.[2] Foley and her mother visited Maningrida in 1992, facilitating a cultural exchange between locals and Badtjala people. Before this, Foley lived and worked in Ramingining for several months.[2] These trips greatly informed her practice, provided further insights into Aboriginal culture, and inspired her to be a cultural leader. In 1995, Foley permanently moved back to Hervey Bay to be with family and take part in Native Title negotiations regarding a portion of Fraser Island.[2] As of 2014, this claim has been successful.[6]

In 2017 Foley completed a Doctorate of Philosophy. Her research focused on The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897.[7] A number of her artworks have referenced this act and its effect on the Badtjala people.[3]

Career and artistic practiceEdit

Community engagement is pertinent to Foley's art practice.[5] She contributed to the emergence of urban Australian Indigenous Art through her participation in the seminal Koori '84 group exhibition.[5] Following this, she was involved in the foundation of several artist co-operatives and initiatives. These include the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative and artist exchanges and collaborative workshops between Badtjala people and artists from Maningrida & Ramingining.[5] More recently Foley’s involvement in the arts community has extended to curatorial roles. In 1994 she co-curated Tyerabarrbowaryaou II - I shall never become a white man for the Havana Biennial alongside Djon Mundine.[5] This was the first international exhibition to be curated by Indigenous Australians.[5][8]

Political issues are central to Foley’s practice.[2] Her works in public art and installation aim to examine and redress previously disregarded histories of colonisation in Australia.[9] One such example is Edge of the Trees, a 1995 collaboration with Janet Laurence - the first major public artwork by both an Indigenous and a non-Indigenous Australian artist.[2] In 1995 it was awarded the Lloyd Rees Award for Urban Design.[2] The work utilises both Western and Indigenous iconographies to evidence historical conflict - both on its site (the Museum of Sydney, formerly Australia’s first Government House) and across Australia.[2] Pukumani or tutini (funerary) poles contrast Sydney’s urban landscape and memorialise the violence that shaped early interactions with settlers on the city’s shore.[5]

Foley’s Land Deal (1995) and Lie of the Land (1997) serve as evidence and a reminder of John Batman’s now-invalidated treaty for 600,000 acres of Wurundjeri land (where Melbourne currently stands), and its basis on false premises.[2][3] Similarly, Witnessing to Silence (2004) remembers all known massacres of Indigenous people within Queensland, listing 94 such sites.[3] The corpses on these sites were hidden either by burning or submerging in bodies of water.[3] Foley engaged in some chicanery to ensure the work’s installation, telling its commissioners (Brisbane Magistrate’s Court) that the work was about sites of natural phenomena - fire and flood.[3] The work’s true meaning was only unveiled once installed.[3]  2009’s Black Opium (a permanent installation across multiple rooms at the State Library of Queensland) references The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 and the impacts of the British colonial opium trade on both Chinese and Indigenous communities.[10] By exhibiting these works within the context of Western cultural institutions, Foley aims to evidence and embed oppressive Australian histories where they have previously been excluded.[2]

At other times Foley’s work strikes a more playful or satirical political tone.[5] Her appropriation of ethnographic imagery and 'Aboriginalia' (kitsch objects depicting Indigenous Australians in a culturally insensitive manner) serve to critique these claims to the representation of Indigenous people.[9][5][11] Positioning herself as both subject and author, Foley rectifies power imbalances and reconstructs an oppressive history.[5] Works such as 1994’s Native Blood and Badtjala Woman demonstrate an aim to undermine and challenge the historical and 'scientific' sanctity of such images, whilst highlighting the West’s idealisation, sexualisation and exploitation of Indigenous culture as an exotic aesthetic.[5]

Connection to place features heavily throughout Foley’s practice.[2] Themes of nature - sand and sea -  pervade pictorial works and foreground the significance of Foley’s ancestral ties to Thoorgine (Fraser Island).[5] The Legends of Moonie Jarl, a book written and illustrated in the 1960s by Foley’s aunt and uncle, relates numerous Badtjala creation stories that describe the animals, vegetation and weather patterns of the island.[2] This text, her mother and her stints in Arnhem Land are considered major reference points for Foley’s 2D practice.[2] Men's Business (1987–89), Catching Tuna (1992) and Salt Water Islands (1992) depict Foley’s experience during her time visiting the remote communities of Maningrida and Ramingining in the Northern Territory.[2] They demonstrate the minimalism, flatness and "symbolic abstraction" that is characteristic of Foley’s pastels and paintings.[2] Typically making use of an aerial perspective, these works privilege meditative spatiality over didactic naturalistic representations.[2] Significantly, this counters historical ethnographic and spectatorial depictions of Indigenous culture by settlers.[3] Contrarily, Foley’s work impresses a sense of myth, memory and dream - both personal and collective. Politically, this practice is an affirmative reclamation of symbols, narratives, cultures and histories that have previously been appropriated or erased.

Foley is represented by Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne.[3]

Selected WorksEdit

  • Annihilation of the Blacks, 1986[12]
  • Eliza’s rat traps, 1991[8]
  • Lost Badtjalas, Severed Hair, 1991[8]
  • Native Blood, 1994[3]
  • Badtjala Woman, 1994[3]
  • Land Deal, 1995[8]
  • Edge of the Trees (with Janet Laurence), 1995[8]
  • HHH, 2004[3]
  • Witnessing to Silence, 2004[3]
  • Nulla 4 eva, 2009[3]


  1. ^ Foley, Fiona. Benezit Dictionary of Artists. Oxford University Press. 31 October 2011. doi:10.1093/benz/9780199773787.article.b00065635.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x Genocchio, Benjamin (2001). Fiona Foley: Solitaire. Piper Press. pp. 32, 83, 188, 43, 60, 57, 62, 65, 61, 90, 16, 75, 34, 39, 73, 83, 35, 76. ISBN 0958798494. OCLC 494240761.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Foley, Fiona (2009). Fiona Foley - forbidden ; [First publ. on the occasion of the exhibition Fiona Forley: Forbidden Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 12 November 2009 – 31 January 2010 ; The University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, 19 February - 2 May 2010]. Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. pp. 135–137, 141, 61. ISBN 9781921034350. OCLC 935272016.
  4. ^ "Andrew Baker: Fiona Foley".
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Neale, Margo., Kleinert, Sylvia., Bancroft, Robyne. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 2000. pp. 301, 188, 267, 271–274, 485, 488, 486, 469. ISBN 0195506499. OCLC 59522132.CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. ^ "Fiona Foley: Woman on the Dunes". Artlink Magazine. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
  7. ^ Foley, Fiona Lee (2017). Biting the Clouds: The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897 (Griffith thesis thesis). Griffith University.
  8. ^ a b c d e National Gallery of Australia. National Gallery of Modern Art (New Delhi, India). The eye of the storm : eight contemporary indigenous Australian artists. p. 65. ISBN 0642130620. OCLC 38413821.
  9. ^ a b National Indigenous Art Triennial (2nd : 2012 : National Gallery of Australia) (2012). Undisclosed : 2nd National Indigenous Art Triennial. pp. 57, 65, 34. ISBN 9780642334213. OCLC 781135341.
  10. ^ Foley, Fiona (2010). Black opium. [State Library of Queensland]. p. 15. ISBN 9780975803059. OCLC 747383562.
  11. ^ Warren, Jacob G. (2 January 2017). "'Pay Attention Mother Fuckers': Outlining a Strategy of Wordplay in Australian Indigenous Text-based Art". Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art. 17 (1): 58. doi:10.1080/14434318.2017.1330677. ISSN 1443-4318.
  12. ^ Australia, National Museum of. "Annihilation of the Blacks". National Museum of Australia. Retrieved 16 October 2019.

Further readingEdit

  • Foley, Fiona (1999). "A Blast From the Past." Performing Hybridity. May Joseph, et al., eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Smith, Terry (2001). "Public Art between Cultures: The "Aboriginal Memorial," Aboriginality, and Nationality in Australia." Critical Inquiry. 27:4.
  • Martin-Chew, Louise (2006). "Poignancy in Somber Truths." The Australian. 27 October.
  • Morrell, Timothy (2009). Collector's Dossier: Fiona Foley, Australian Art Collector, issue 50 Oct–Dec 2009.
  • Mundine, Djon (June 2015). "Fiona Foley : woman on the dunes". Artlink. 35 (2): 26–30.

External linksEdit